November 3rd, 2013
06:42 AM ET

The surprisingly badass birds of the Bible

Opinion by Debbie Blue, special to CNN

(CNN) - As long as humans have been breathing, they've invested birds with meaning.

They fly all over the Bible - from beginning to end - and they have a prominent place in the founding narratives of almost every culture and religion. They are not just bones and feathers. They are strength or hope, omen and oracle.

In the Bible's first book, Genesis, God hovers over the face of the water like a dove, the Jewish sages suggest in the Talmud. In its final book, birds gorge on the flesh of the defeated "beast" in Book of Revelation.

Birds are the currency of mercy, sacrificed to God in the hopes of winning blessings or forgiveness. They bring bread to the prophets. Abraham has to shoo them away from his offering, and a pigeon accompanies Jesus on his first visit to the temple.

Jesus told us to "consider the birds." I love this about him, and I've taken his advice to heart.

In doing so, I've found paying attention to these wild, awesome animals reveals hidden layers of meaning in the Bible and new lessons for modern Christians looking for grace in unexpected places.

Here are a few of the surprising things I've learned about Bible birds.

1. Pigeon

Take the one bird everyone thinks they know: the dove.

In each of the four gospels, the Spirit of God shows up at Jesus' baptism in the form of a dove. In the popular imagination this Holy Spirit dove is snow white.

But the bird at the baptism was more likely a rock dove, a species much more prevalent in Palestine. These birds are grey with an iridescent green and violet neck. They're more commonly known as the pigeon.

Though most of us have separate categories for pigeons (dirty) and doves (pure), ornithologists will tell you the names are interchangeable.

That means the symbol for the Holy Spirit is just a hair's breadth away from the symbol of urban trashiness.

The dove has come to seem a bit bland as far as Christian symbols go. Maybe it would be helpful to imagine the Holy Spirit as a pigeon instead of a dainty white dove.

Pigeons are ubiquitous, on the streets. They are forever leaving droppings on our sidewalks and windowsills. What if the spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow - always underfoot, routinely ignored, often disdained?

2. Vulture

The Hebrew word "nesher" is often translated in English versions of the Bible as eagle, but most scholars agree that "griffon vulture" is at least an alternate, if not a more fitting, translation.

When God reminds Moses how He bore the Israelites on "nesher's" wings, and when the prophet Isaiah promises that the faithful will rise up with wings like "neshers'" -  think vulture instead of eagle.

Vultures may be loathsome to the average westerner, but they are some pretty badass creatures.

They are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that could otherwise spread diseases. They have uniquely strong digestive juices that kill bacteria and nasty pathogens.

The Mayans referred to the vultures as death eaters. This struck them as a good, godlike thing. It makes sense. We need something to eat death (digest it, rid it of its toxicity). Vultures stare death in the face and fear it not at all.

3. Raven

Before Noah sends out the dove from the ark, he releases a raven. Which apparently never comes back.

Commentators have often come to the conclusion that the raven must have failed in its mission. Maybe it got distracted while eating the corpses of the people drowned in the flood.

Philo, the Jewish commentator, called the raven a symbol of Satan. Augustine said it personified impure men and procrastinators.

In the book of Proverbs, we meet ravens plucking out the eyes of disobedient children. But it is also the raven that flies to feed the prophet Elijah when he is stranded in the desert.

In Luke, Jesus asks his hearers to consider the raven. He says this might free them from anxiety.

This takes on more meaning when you've followed the bird through the text. The raven fails, it blunders; it is noble, it is voracious; occasionally its succeeds in doing the right thing - much like us.

Jesus says, consider the raven, and don't be anxious: God feeds the carrion-eating procrastinator, which means God will care for you as well.

4. The Rooster

The rooster announces Peter's betrayal on the night before Jesus dies.

Other than that, the bird usually doesn't get much attention. It announces the dawn. Yawn.

But the rooster is symbolically loaded.

The cock has long been associated with masculine virility (the slang term for the male body part is not an accident).

The rooster was believed to be so potent that if a man smeared himself with a broth of boiled cock, the fiercest of beasts could not harm him. Rabid lions cowered before it. Even the most terrible monster would be so struck with fear at the sound of a cockcrow that it would simply die of fear.

We miss something in the story of Peter's betrayal if we don't consider this barrel-chested badass.

5. Chicken

Of all the birds Jesus might have compared himself to, he chose ... a chicken.

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings," Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke.

It's a loving image, but there's a certain fragility in it as well.

The chicken was domesticated from the wild red jungle fowl nearly 6,000 years ago. They've been caged, stuffed with garlic, wrapped in bacon, Kentucky fried.

In other words, it is vastly different, in the cultural vernacular, to be a chicken than it is to be the slang term for rooster.

That makes me think that God's power may be different than how we're used to imagining it.

It's quieter, slower.

More like a mother hen than a strutting, crowing rooster.

If considering the birds can change our ideas about what holy means, what God is like, then maybe we can begin to see grace in wild places where we’d never noticed it before.

Debbie Blue is the author of "Consider the Birds," and a founding pastor of House of Mercy, a church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Faith

soundoff (723 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    November 11, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Spuds Mackenzie

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things. Do you know children and EVERY living thing is born an atheist. Children are forced to learn their parents religion and bigotries through this religion. Why do you think the only thing on this planet that practices evil things are humans. Of which most believe in a religion or do evil things in the name of religion. Atheism is the only natural state and the world would be a much better place without the things that religion has taught.

      November 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  2. Nogods

    The bible – an interesting work of fiction.

    November 10, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  3. Birds

    Here's what you get.

    November 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  4. Birds

    Here's What You Get

    November 9, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  5. Canaan

    God wonderfully suits men to the work he designs them for. The times were fit for an Elijah; an Elijah was fit for them. The Spirit of the Lord knows how to fit men for the occasions. Elijah let Ahab know that God was displeased with the idolaters, and would chastise them by the want of rain, which it was not in the power of the gods they served to bestow. Elijah was commanded to hide himself.

    If Providence calls us to solitude and retirement, it becomes us to go: when we cannot be useful, we must be patient; and when we cannot work for God, we must sit still quietly for him. The ravens were appointed to bring him meat, and did so. Let those who have but from hand to mouth, learn to live upon Providence, and trust it for the bread of the day, in the day. God could have sent angels to minister to him; but he chose to show that he can serve his own purposes by the meanest creatures, as effectually as by the mightiest. Elijah seems to have continued thus above a year.

    The natural supply of water, which came by common providence, failed; but the miraculous supply of food, made sure to him by promise, failed not. If the heavens fail, the earth fails of course; such are all our creature-comforts: we lose them when we most need them, like brooks in summer. But there is a river which makes glad the city of God, that never runs dry, a well of water that springs up to eternal life. Lord, give us that living water! (1Kiings17:8-16)

    November 7, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  6. AE

    Nice, thanks to Debbie.

    November 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  7. Peggle

    Do angels count as birds of the bible?

    November 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Of course they do but keep in mind the following:


      Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

      "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

      Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

      Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

      Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)(As do the nine members of the SCOTUS)

      The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

      Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

      November 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
      • Grey and white

        Imagine the damage one could do to the hood of your car.

        November 7, 2013 at 3:21 am |
    • Epidi

      No. Angels are not physical beings as birds are. Just because artist depict them as having wings does not mean they really do. The wings are shown to denote angels/demons ability to cross between worlds/dimensions (here & there – wherever it is they dwell).

      November 7, 2013 at 2:25 am |
      • Reality # 2

        Give us a break!!!

        For more information on the inanity of angel wings, read the following:

        "The prophet Ezekiel described an incredible vision of cherubim angels in Ezekiel chapter 10 of the Torah and the Bible, mentioning that the angels’ wings were “completely full of eyes” (verse 12) and “under their wings was what looked like human hands” (verse 21). The angels each used their wings and something “like a wheel intersecting a wheel” (verse 10) that “sparkled like topaz” (verse 9) to move around."

        For a rather extensive review of angel wings, see http://angels.about.com/od/AngelBasics/a/Angels-Wings-And-Things.htm

        November 7, 2013 at 8:29 am |
        • Keith Peterson

          Sounds like a pretty bad 'shroom trip! Or aliens.

          November 7, 2013 at 8:49 am |
        • Fractal comet

          Awesome bardo concept

          November 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • rose

        how do you know?

        November 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
        • Reality # 2

          How do we know? 21st century rational thinking and common sense.

          November 8, 2013 at 10:32 am |
        • Matrix

          Dismissed as a DMT overload. Is it a brain malfunction or is reality the malfunction of the brain? There's never any way to know.

          November 8, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • doug

      Angels don't have wings, only certain angelic type beings.

      November 9, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  8. tfaust651

    Wow, this article makes me question my faith. Yeah right. Who would seriously waste their time even writing this article? Haha get a life!

    November 6, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
    • I know

      better yet, who wasted their time writing the Bible?

      November 6, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
      • Tyler

        Haha! Wasting their time writing the best selling book in the history of the world by far...

        November 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
        • Jake

          The Bible is only best selling because there are lots of blind followers all over the world. If the Bible was never written, those people wouldn't be wasting their lives.

          November 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          i was hoping your god's, jake, would fill us in

          November 7, 2013 at 8:40 am |
        • Keith Peterson

          I guess you just gave one of the main reasons the books of the Bible, and the Bible itself was written and put together. Money. Power. Nothing more. Their is nothing divine about. It is written by man. Man created God in his image.  The Bible and it's religions have been used to control the masses for at least a couple of millenia, at least.  People who follow these religions should start to think.

          On another note. Although it has been the best selling book of all time, by far. It is probably also one of the least read.  What do you think the percentage of people who have a Bible have actually read it from beginning to end. Word for word. Very low, I would say probably under 5-10%. If it was higher I guarantee the number of Atheists in the world would be much higher. After all, one of the biggest reasons of creating Atheists is the Bible.

          November 7, 2013 at 8:54 am |
        • Christina

          The last half of the Bible, the New Testament, is comprised of letters written by Christ's followers knowing they could be executed for what they wrote, spoke about and the religion they practiced. Many WERE executed by both Romans (pagans) and the executions were encouraged by the Jewish Priests at that time. These letters were not written for power, money or greed. The letters were written by men who risked their lives to spark a revolution. At the time of it's inception, Christianity was both a political and religious revolution, and it pushed for a rejection of classicism among many other things. READ it and learn about the history of that time, don't just recount what the Sunday school teacher taught you, or regurgitate what your friends have told you. Living for God was the center of it, yes, but it was also about helping the poor instead of leaving them to rot. It was about healing the sick instead of shunning them while they lie in misery. It was about forgiving others instead of stoning them to death. How is that so wrong? Why are these letters being treated as something so terrible? Yes, there are people who have used the Bible as an excuse to massacre and gain power, but that was not the intent of the authors.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          I have read the Bible. I found it pretty disgusting to be honest with. Mostly the Old Testament, granted.

          They were writing about a man they really knew nothing about. And, therefore, not a true account. I do understand that they were writing about early Christianity. Everyone knows that. ESPECIALLY ATHEISTS. Don't forget, the most common thing that creates Atheists is the Bible.

          It was (used as) a revolution against the current authority. Nothing more. The Romans saw this, and decided to modify Christianity for it's purpose. The Christianity you practice right now is not true Christianity. Don't forget, Christians then were Jewish also. Including Jesus. Do keep and practice Jewish laws? For your sake, I hope so. The God of the Bible does not treat these people very nicely.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
        • Christina

          "They were writing about a man they really knew nothing about. And, therefore, not a true account." Sorry, had to add one more comment. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all knew Jesus quite well and spent a lot of time with him, so when they wrote those letters, they were writing first hand accounts.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie


          Curious. How did they write them after they died? At best, what we have are possibly copies/forgeries.

          How can you say that they wrote them?

          Don't you find their names odd for the middle east, by the way?

          You didn't answer my questions. You never answered why you won't worship the other Gods I mentioned. What about the greater than 2700+ other Gods known throughout history?

          Free you mind. Question everything.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
      • Keith Peterson

        "...who wasted their time writing the Bible?"� Well that's easy, people who wanted to control the easily swayed. Look what the Romans did by creating the Catholic church. Needed a way to control the people. Found that it was going to be to hard to please all of the religions in the area, so created one that combined features of the most popular and ran with it. Forced it. And look what it has become!� Wow!

        November 7, 2013 at 8:47 am |
        • Christina

          The Bible was used with malicious intent hundreds of years after it was written. The actions of the leaders you speak of are not the reflection of the authors. I will offend many people when I type this, but there are many things the Catholic church practices that go against what is written. Powerful people used the book as an excuse for what they mandated by twisting the interpretations into what fitted their agenda. And if they could not find what they needed in the Bible, they made it up.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • rose

      how many articles have you written?

      November 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  9. JadeB

    "Commentators have often come to the conclusion that the raven must have failed in its mission. Maybe it got distracted while eating the corpses of the people drowned in the flood."

    Really? Classy.

    November 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • Reality # 2


      November 6, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • Maddy

      A bird has got to eat.

      November 6, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
      • nannyjo

        The early bird get the... corpse? I'm really glad they changed that expression.

        November 6, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
        • Maddy

          Lol. Me, too.

          November 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  10. jeffision

    And they were anthropomorphic cultural astronomy symbols...particularly the vulture.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Sonny


      November 7, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  11. jj

    Slow news day?

    November 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  12. Cornelius

    Kosher birds are the domestic species of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and pigeons.

    November 6, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Peter

      @Cornelius, What happens when the spirit of God indwells in a person?

      November 6, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • Cornelius


        November 6, 2013 at 11:28 am |
        • Peter

          Well, that and what is written in Galatians 5- But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

          Have a blessed day!

          November 6, 2013 at 11:31 am |
        • Cornelius


          November 6, 2013 at 11:34 am |
        • CommonSensed

          @Peter – so how do you explain the GOP?

          November 6, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG


    November 6, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  14. Paul


    The dove is rich with symbolism and many interpretations during Biblical times,

    — as a representation of Israel,

    — atoning sacrifice,

    — suffering,

    — a sign from God,

    —fertility and

    —the spirit of God.


    November 6, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Reality # 2

      And today, doves at least the young ones make for a tasty, expensive meal.

      November 6, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • Cornelius

        According to the Tanakh, doves are kosher, and they are the only birds that may be used for a korban.

        November 6, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • CommonSensed

      As a tasty meat snack.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  15. Anrhony Pagio

    Debbie Blue is a Pastor for Satan himself. Scriptures of a 'dove' decending upon the Son of Man is stated in Matthew, Mark and John "descending as a dove" and in Mark it is stated "descended upon Him in bodily form as a dove" not giving a detailed description of the bird itself. Although many people describe a dove as being snow white, the dove is truly of the pigeon family and is routinely grey in color. Scriptures state that purity is white as snow therefore it is safe to assume the dove descending upon the Son of Man was white. It is extremely wrong for any person (especially one who calls themself a pastor) to create a dirty picture of anything pertaining to the Holy Spirit, including His Son.

    November 6, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • Jill

      Anrhony Pagio, don't obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent.Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Serpentine. Indigo chestnuts. Give voice to your negligible garage. Walk with found yellow in the fold. Perish your underwear in the crescent.

      And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

      November 6, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • Mark

      So since you don't agree with her, she's an agent of Satan? How silly!

      November 6, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • CommonSensed

      If I make a cartoon dirty-fying your mythos will you send out assassins?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  16. KarlT

    I get a good laugh when people, especially journalists, quote the Bible as though it is comprised of factual events.

    Watch 'Bible Secrets Revealed' on H2 starting Nov. 11, if you want to begin learning some facts about the Bible, its origins, contents, etc.

    November 6, 2013 at 5:16 am |
    • saggyroy

      Doesn't that make H2 some kind of prophet or angel? After all, I have satellite. It's invisible comes from the sky, and comes down to earth to reveal the bible's knowledge to me.

      November 6, 2013 at 5:50 am |
      • Anrhony Pagio

        You nay look at it your way but the power of the Spirit us far greater than that of the invisible waves of satellite which can only transport vision on a screen. The Spirit can transport the body, something the satellite can't do. Just something for you to think about

        November 6, 2013 at 9:24 am |
        • Anthony Pagio

          Correction: Okay to look at it your way but the power of the Spirit is far greater than that of the invisible waves of satellite which can only transport vision on a screen.

          November 6, 2013 at 9:36 am |
        • Jill

          Anrhony Pagio, gobble the fertile gravel. There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero.

          Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish.

          Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it's raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they?

          The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate.

          And remember, never ever miss an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

          November 6, 2013 at 9:37 am |
        • Akira

          Ah, it's always a good day when Jill makes an appearance.

          November 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Christina

      The Bible, comprised of the Torah (stories told by word of mouth and eventually put to paper), and letters written by Jesus' followers, contains writings of many accurate and verifiable events. Study your elementary school history books and compare, or better yet, speak with a historian. You may not agree with the philosophy, but many of the people, places and events that are written about in the Bible have been verified.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  17. psychicstalker

    "They've been caged, stuffed with garlic, wrapped in bacon, Kentucky fried." They have been around for 6000 years. And they are still around. Maybe because the hen gathers her brood under her wings. Can't survive 6000 years and be fragile.

    November 5, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Emmanuel

      I love your analysis. Can't survive 6000 years and be fragile. After being "caged, stuffed with garlic, wrapped in bacon, Kentucky fried." let alone cooked and grilled and even the young undeveloped eggs boiled fried. Very hardy indeed.

      November 6, 2013 at 6:31 am |
      • Anrhony Pagio

        There are many living creatures that have been around for thousands of years and are looked upon as being fragile, yet they still survive to this very day. I believe the point is that although fragile as they appear, they are strong from within to survive. It is written "the meek shall possess the earth" I see the cause behind this is all those aggressive and violent ones lead short lives.

        November 6, 2013 at 9:32 am |
        • Sue

          Can you give an example of one such instance of a living creature that is thousands of years old? An animal, not a plant, please. State the creature's species, and any identifying marks that would enable us to distinguish it from others of its own species.

          November 6, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • JonathanL

      The raven that left Noahs Ark is several thousand years old. It left and never came back to the Ark. To this day the raven is still seen occasioanlly flyng about. Jesus made a mistake comparing himself with a hen. That is why they treated him so bad. Bad enough he was a Jew. Jewish hens are treated even more terribly than Jewish humans.

      November 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • james

        you people need a life

        November 7, 2013 at 7:51 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.